Dr. Liu Beibei On China’s Environmental Policy

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NANJING, China — Dr. Liu Beibei holds a PhD in Environmental Planning and Management from Nanjing University and wrote her dissertation on the enforcement of environmental economic policies in China. She is now working in the field of environmental and energy management. She is an Associate Professor at the School of Environment, Nanjing University and an Adjunct Professor of Environmental Science at the Hopkins–Nanjing Center in Nanjing, China.

When did you start teaching at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center?

I started last year after two years of postdoctoral study at Johns Hopkins. Before that, I was an assistant professor at the Nanjing University School of Environment.

What has been your experience?

I love the students. They are very creative, always open to information from all sides, and they raise many of useful questions that push me to learn more about the field.

What are your areas of research interest?

I work mostly in the field of environmental policy analysis and also in energy policy analysis. I also do evaluations of the sustainability of energy systems, especially bio-energy systems.

What is the current state of environmental policy in China?

Things move very fast in environmental policy design in China. I have noticed that the Ministry of Environmental Protection now has more power to implement policies than ten or even five years ago. After Xi Jinping came to power, there was definitely a renewed focus on environmental protection.

Though the situation has improved over the last year, China still has serious air pollution problems. What difficulties do policy makers face when trying to control smog?

In short: we all need blue sky, but who will pay for it? In response to the air quality crisis, the environmental bureau has started enforcing stricter regulations. One major example is the increased pressure placed on farmers burning straw. There has been a lot of debate over how to prevent this practice: in one area the local officials went so far as to put up posters saying they would imprison farmers who burned straw! It is true, of course, that if the straw is burned intensively, the air quality will go down. However, the solution is not as simple as saying that farmers should not burn straw. One thing they could do is cut it into pieces and then put it back into the soil, but that will lower the quality of the soil. This would lead to the farmers using more fertilizer, which in turn could cause serious environmental problems. The straw could be used for other purposes, like construction or bio-energy, but the collection cost for the farmers is very high.  If it is possible, I would prefer it if the costs could be shifted to, for example, car owners and construction companies. They are also are also major sources of air pollution, but have more  ability to pay.  

What policy tools have traditionally been used to combat pollution in China?

The traditional policy implements were discharge fees for water pollutants, air pollutants, toxic chemicals and so on. Historically, the fees tended to be quite low compared to the marginal abatement cost. China has been reforming prices throughout the economy, and the environment is no exception to this trend. In particular, there have been big changes to the system of water pollution fees. We are working on a system of carbon pricing, but there is a lot of debate on how to reduce emissions. For example, should we levy carbon taxes on raw materials, inputs, or finished products?

What system do you think would be best for carbon pricing?

It’s a difficult question, because the answer depends on what level of economic development a country has reached. You could try to implement economy-wide carbon control policies like cap and trade. However, I think that in China right now, the most cost-effective measures focus on changing the incentives of energy-intensive industries. Our research has shown that, for example, the steel industry has been very responsive to environmental pressure, as has the coal industry. Ideally, government pressure will lead them to adopt technologically best practices and increase energy efficiency.

What are some common pitfalls or mistakes that environmental policy makers fall prey to?

One thing you see very often today is environmental regulators arguing that strict environmental policy has a “limited” impact on economic development. In reality, decisions regarding what level of pollution are reasonable are inherently political decisions that should come from central decision makers. These leaders must consider both economic development and pollution prevention. The key role of the environmental protection sector is to ensure that environmental policies are well enforced, not to evaluate the consequences of the policies they advocate for.

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